The Business of Space: One Giant Leap

By A. S. Deller | 23 April 2021

(Photo by NASA on Unsplash)

Since the “space race” began in earnest over six decades ago, our quest to conquer the cold vacuum which starts roughly 62 miles above us has bestowed upon us vast amounts of inspiration, driven rapid growth in STEM careers, providing new technologies, and advanced our understanding of the universe in ways not even some science fiction authors might have guessed.

The idea that “good things come to those who wait” is no better represented by any business opportunities than those found in the space sector.

One of the first ways to generate revenue in space that comes to mind is mining. There are over 13,000 near-Earth objects (NEOs) that might hold untold riches. Though they’re termed “near-Earth”, these asteroids are still very far away, a NEO can be any object within 1.3 astronomical units (AUs) of our planet. One AU equals the distance from Earth to the Sun or 93 million miles. So NEOs can be tens of millions of miles away.

The country of Luxembourg is seldom spoken of in relation to space development efforts, but there we find some very forward-thinking action taking place. The country helped form and became a primary shareholder in a satellite company named Société Européenne des Satellites (SES) in 1985, with an eye toward creating a massive network of space capabilities.

In 2015, United States President Obama introduced a major change to space law which allows private individuals and companies to own and make use of material collected from celestial bodies. The company Planetary Resources released a statement saying:

[This law is the] single greatest recognition of property rights in history…[and] establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and will encourage the sustained development of space.

This law is titled the U.S. Space Launch Competitiveness Act, and it essentially unlocks the right to mine asteroids. This partly reverses some of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967’s agreements, which forbade political entities (nations) from claiming sovereignty over celestial bodies and doing things like placing weapons on the Moon.

In July of 2015, asteroid 2011 UW-158 zipped by the Earth. Moving at 100,000 miles per hour, and it became the most valuable single object any of us might ever lay telescope-assisted eyes on. At half a mile in diameter, with a 100 million ton solid metallic core that might be comprised mostly of platinum, based on spectrographic analysis, UW-158 might be worth as much as $4 trillion. Of course, bringing even a small percentage of that material back to Earth would create an oversupply and negatively affect platinum’s current high value, but this still serves as a prime example of how vast are the resources available beyond Earth.

With technology we have right now, we could actually perform asteroid mining. Satellites, of whatever masses are necessary, can be used to ram asteroids in order to position them. Once a NEO is where we need it to be (preferably much closer to Earth, possibly in orbit), we could then link up with the object and essentially construct a small base around it, and then commence operations to mine it.

Travelling, living and working in space has and always will come with many problems, many of them deadly. Aside from the deleterious effects that cosmic radiation and zero/low-gravity have on the human body, life in space is a constant battle to avoid exposure to the low pressure and immense cold of vacuum. Simply getting into space has tremendous risks associated with the launch. And it’s also a hugely expensive endeavour:

The shuttle program cost about $209 billion (in 2010 dollars) over its lifetime and made a total of 135 flights, yielding an average cost per launch of more than $1.5 billion.

Every pound of payload – from satellites to put in orbit, to life support equipment and astronaut gear, food and water, and to the astronauts themselves – currently adds about $10,000 to a launch’s cost, according to NASA. The efforts of newer space startups like SpaceX have been driving the cost of launch far lower, most directly due to the reusability factor of newer rockets:

SpaceX says that it costs $62 million every time its Falcon 9 rocket is launched, while the more powerful Falcon Heavy costs an estimated $90 million per launch.

(Image: Bill Ingalls / NASA)

SpaceX is not alone in these efforts. Blue Origin, founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Virgin Galactic, founded by Burt Rutan and Sir Richard Branson, are two of Musk’s most visible competitors. OneWeb is working on placing huge constellations of miniature satellites in orbit to create complete worldwide internet coverage, with SpaceX and Blue Origin vying for the same goal. An entire sub-ecosystem of businesses is growing to support those efforts, including companies like CesiumAstro, Isotropic Systems, Kolmostar, Mynaric, Swarm Technologies, ZeroG Lab and others.

At this time, the largest roadblock to attempting a mining operation in space is cost. Reusable rocket technology might make it affordable if multiple rich countries combine resources and if the target object is as valuable as UW-158, but it would still be cutting it close. Ramming and positioning a very large NEO might entail a dozen or more launches (~$1 billion if using the Falcon Heavy) while building the mining infrastructure around it would easily 10x that number. Added to that would be the 5+ years it would take to get to that point. And then there would be the costs of actually performing the mining and transporting ore back to Earth. Ongoing costs would easily surpass several billion dollars per year, and the sheer mass of the object would require decades of work to mine out. Would it be worth mining a massive asteroid worth $4 trillion over the course of 50 years at a cost of $500 billion? Of course, it would. But the scale of investment and time creates a void of relevancy in modern government and business minds.

While such a large goal may one day be reached, once costs and timelines can be reduced significantly, there are many other ways to monetize space that are currently in play. GPS, space-hardened travel technology, video, and communications tools, telescopy, and patent generation are only a few focuses. And these are directly related to space development efforts.

The European Space Agency works diligently to help entrepreneurs and startups gain access to space-borne innovations via their Technology Transfer Program, headed by engineer Frank Salzgeber. He explains much of their mission in one of his informative TEDx talks:

There is a whole other class of opportunities Salzgeber calls “downstream space applications”. Such applications include repurposing, or technology transfer, of that which is learned or created initially for use in space: various ceramics and composite materials made for rockets and shuttles that end up as car brakes and in aeroplane fuselages; new data storage formats that don’t rely on companies like Adobe that might not be supported in decades; radar used for ultra-precise measurement in Earthbound construction project management; replacing traditional vacuum tube X-ray devices with fully digital radiography.

According to NASA’s 2013 space exploration benefits publication, some of the technologies that will be innovated upon in the near future include:

Development of highly reliable human and robotic systems interacting with each other on Earth and in space with limited maintenance;

Long travel time and operation in confined spacecraft and shelters;

New transportation capabilities (e.g. launch, rendezvous, docking, refuelling, landing);

Operations in extremely hostile environments;

Autonomous operations with limited communications and logistical supplies from Earth;

Miniaturization of components and development of new in‐situ capabilities.

There are also ongoing efforts in developing closed-loop life support systems – like the MELiSSA project (Micro‐Ecological Life Support System Alternative) – and continuing advances in telemedicine, such as the development of Advanced Diagnostic Ultrasound in Microgravity (ADUM), both of which will contribute to environmental and medical technology transfer opportunities here on Earth.

The possibilities for business success in space are as endless as the universe itself. While it will still require more time – measured in years, and probably a few decades – before efficiencies allow for costs and travel times to be reduced to levels that are not disheartening to an average entrepreneur, the time is now to push harder and farther than ever in order to get humanity to a point where we are nearly as comfortable, and safe, living and working in space as we are at sea or in the air.

If the Wright Brothers had waited for only the best possible versions of the materials and know-how in aeronautical engineering, they would have waited their entire lives. We don’t just need entrepreneurs in the space industry: We need “adventurepreneurs”.

Thank you for reading and sharing.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

A. S. Deller is a Sci fi, Fantasy and Science writer. Follow him at Medium and Twitter.

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